Is it feasible to go on a multi-centre European family holiday by train? Absolutely! Here’s a brief guide for anyone considering taking their family interrailing.
Since 1972 the Interrail pass has offered a different way of travel to the young people of Europe. Originally only available to the under-21s it’s now available to all ages, with ‘youth’ (12-27) still eligible for a cheaper pass than adults. There is no charge for a pass for the under-12s. The Global Pass can be used in up to 33 countries and includes one outbound and inbound train in your home country. If you aren’t a resident of a European country you can buy a Eurail pass, which is essentially the same thing.
Pros and Cons
Before booking an interrailing holiday with the family consider the pros and cons to travelling by train and really take time to consider if you think it suits you and your children.
Lower carbon footprint than long drives or flying
Less tiring than driving
Fun for the kids*
The journey is as important as the destination – travelling is part of the holiday
Great way to create a multi-centre, multi-country European holiday
You can sleep on the train – even in a bed for the night! Save on accommodation plus added excitement of waking up in a new place
Get further quicker than driving
Less flexibility on where you can go than driving
Luggage limit – take only what can you reasonably carry and be aware that available space on trains for luggage is not always very generous (especially in sleeper cabins!)
Sleeping on the train is definitely not as comfortable as a hotel or AirBnB!
Boring for the kids*
*depends on the kid / day / time / mood / phase!
I would argue that taking the train is not the cheapest travelling option, certainly compared to driving. Flying, especially a budget flight, is almost certainly cheaper to a single destination. Train travel, especially using an interrail pass, is more akin to taking a road trip, perfect for when you’re planning to stay in more than one destination during your holiday. Having said all that, no price hikes in high-season, so you don’t feel penalised for travelling during school holidays.
The Interrail Pass
At the heart of this type of travel in Europe is the Interrail pass – beloved of late teens and twentysomethings for generations. It’s great for families too as under-12s are eligible for a free pass. One adult can travel with up to 2 children.
There are a multitude of passes available. Read through all of the options on the interrail website really carefully. We chose the pass which offered 5 days travel within one month (we went on a two-week holiday) and we broke up our holiday into 3 main locations. This worked for us, spending between 3 nights and 5 nights in a single place. We found this struck the right balance, allowing time to explore and relax in each location.
Plan your trip
Before deciding exactly which pass you want, you’ll need to plan your trip, or at least sketch out a rough idea. The Interrail website provides a useful tool but it’s not completely foolproof. The excellent Man in Seat 61 will help out with any train-related queries. Thanks to this fantastic resource I was able to build our perfect journey to include an overnight train. I was finding it increasingly difficult on the Interrail site to find the right combination.
Reservations and hidden costs
Trip planned, pass bought, now it’s time to lock down your journey and make your reservations. The Interrail site makes recommendations for trains where reservations are mandatory, and each individual train company charges for these reservations. The kids are charged too. Eurostar, unsurprisingly, requires a paid for reservation (four tickets from London to Brussels cost a total of 120 euros on top of our passes). You’ll find that most inter-city trains require a reservation. The charges for these vary – some were as low as 26 euros for all four tickets, while others went up to 140 euros (Zurich to Paris). While you might be tempted to skip this and save the money, I’d strongly urge you to make those reservations. Most of the trains we travelled on were completely full. While ‘standing-room only’ might be ok for a single adult, when travelling with kids it’s not a great option for a four-hour journey. We did take the risk on shorter journeys where the discomfort mattered less. Some of those trains were crowded, but all four of us did get a seat, albeit in two different carriages.
We paid for a couchette reservation on the sleeper which came to 184 euros for all four of us and included bedding and a light breakfast. It was a highlight of our trip – well, for the kids at least. MrP and I may have had slightly darker the bags under our eyes after a night of restless sleep.
What to pack
Packing for train travel requires a bit of thought, especially if you’re planning a multi-centre trip where you’ll be changing locations every few days. First up, you’ll need to decide what type of bags or suitcases to take.
Things to consider when choosing your main bag(s)
- Easy to carry, including on stairs
- Easy to pack and repack when changing locations
- One ‘suitcase’ each, or will the grown-ups be carrying for the kids too?
I strongly felt that I wanted to be hands-free, so that I could help the kids as needed, or hold onto them in busy stations, therefore chose to take a rucksack (Osprey Fairview 70). After two weeks of travelling I was very happy with my choice. MrP chose the larger Osprey Sojourn 80 which is pulled on wheels, but also converts to a rucksack if needed. He had no trouble lugging this up and down stairs in stations. It’s very much a personal choice. Our kids each had their own wheelie cabin-sized case (Osprey Rolling Transporter 40 and Eastpak Tranverz S). They were fine pulling these themselves and were even ok on stairs, if they were in the mood!
Top Tip: We are big fans of packing cubes, and they come into their own if your trip includes an overnight train. Our tip is to pack everything the whole family will need for that night (pyjamas, wash bag, change of clothes) in a packing cube which is in turn packed in an easy-access part of one of the main bags. The couchette compartments are a bit of a squeeze. Having everything handy makes settling in so much easier.
Ideally, if your kids are old enough, each family member should carry their own day bag. Our day bags are rucksacks which are also suitable for use when hiking. The day bags should contain everything a family member needs to keep busy during a journey. You can read our top tips here! You’ll need to keep your bulky Interrail passes and train reservations handy too as they will get checked on every journey. The boys have Jack Wolfskin rucksacks which they find comfortable and are just roomy enough to carry their tablets, a book or two, a small game or two, some toys, notebooks and a pencil case. They each have a water bottle holder too. (#ad The 6yo’s tiger-print rucksack, pictured above, was gifted by Little Trekkers who we are ambassadors for.)
Top Tip: the air conditioning can be pretty fierce on some trains, so be prepared with layers!
We highly recommend carrying your own food for each journey so you don’t need to rely on an a buffet, restaurant car or food and drinks trolley on the train. It also avoids the mad dash to an overpriced shop in the station. Any food which didn’t fit in our day bags was carried in our packaway shopping bags. These can get reused over and over again, avoiding single-use plastic bags. As we stayed in self-catering accommodation on our holiday we found it fairly easy to create picnics for our journeys.
Travel Day 1 Home village to London Paddington, tube to Kings Cross St Pancras St Pancras to Brussels Brussels to Cologne Cologne to Wels (sleeper) Travel Day 2 Wels to Salzburg We hired a car in Salzburg and stayed on the shores of Mondsee, one of the stunning lakes of the Salzkammergut - Austria's answer to the Lake District. Travel Day 3 Salzburg to Sankt Anton am Arlberg We spent four days in St Anton. We didn't hire a car, using public transport, cable cars, our feet and hired bikes to explore. Travel Day 4 Sankt Anton am Arlberg to Zurich Zurich to Paris We spent three days in Paris Travel Day 5 Paris to St Pancras, tube to Paddington Paddington to Home village
Find out more about our time in St Anton by reading our Things to do St Anton blog
More details about our family-friendly bike tour of Paris can be found here